For a franchise historically used to delivering bad news by the boxcar, the Mariners in 2015 are bringing in good news by the freighter. For those steeped in the traditions of Seattle baseball — typically, two outs and nobody on — it’s disconcerting.
It’s like swapping out the old Philco black and white TV in a cabinet for a Samsung curved 65-inch, Smart 4K SUHD LED TV. You know it’s cool, but it’s easier to accept if you’re 12 years old and don’t know history.
And I’m referring today not about the game on the field, but mostly the game in the bank.
In March the Mariners reported to the state’s Public Facilities District that operates the stadium a cash profit for 2014 of $11.6 million. The figure is merely a keyhole-sized look at the club’s books, but the number suggests that the Mariners are long past the pretense of financial struggle.
That profit was based in part on Safeco attendance of 2.06 million, a nice bump from 2013’s 1.76 million, but smaller than four seasons in the Kingdome and nowhere near the club’s Safeco peak of 3.54 million in 2002.
Then came the Forbes story last week that in the magazine’s annual valuation of MLB franchises, the Mariners were worth $1.1 billion, a 55 percent increase from the previous year’s estimate. Not a bad return on the $100 million purchase from Jeff Smulyan in 1992.
Then we learned this week that the Mariners have increased the 2015 player payroll to $120 million, according to an Associated Press survey of MLB clubs. Last year, they began the season at $92 million.
Add up these benchmark financials and it creates a picture of prosperity — annual operating profits, rapidly increasing appreciation in equity, healthy player payroll — for a team that has not made the playoffs in 13 years.
Imagine if they had won a little.
With the arrival in the playoffs last fall after a brutal, 29-season absence, the Kansas City Royals eagerly let the Mariners leap over them on the list of teams with longest postseason droughts. The new leader in the craphouse is Toronto, Seattle’s expansion sister, at 21 seasons. The Mariners are No. 2, two ahead of the Miami Marlins.
For all the praise heaped upon the 12s for their forehead-vein-popping support of the Seahawks, and for all the wows globally that accompany news of the nightly 40,000 at Sounders games, perhaps even more amazing feat in this sports marketplace is that the region’s fan base did not totally quit on the Mariners.
To put up with 13 years of ineptitude and blunder despite favorable economic and geographic advantages accruing to a monopoly operation, Mariners fans deserve some sort of award for industrial-strength passion over logic.
Well, at least half of them do — the low of 1.72 million in 2012 is about a 50 percent scare-off since ’02. The numbers certainly could have been lower. The Adam Jones trade alone should have sent thousands to their tornado cellars for life.
But many remained. Now they grow, thanks in part to Jack Zduriencik and/or others who convinced CEO Howard Lincoln that standard business practices do not apply in MLB. Lincoln approved the extension of Felix Hernandez’s contract and the signing of Robinson Cano in amounts that directly contradict everything he learned in business life about reality.
Those two maneuvers, combined with the purchase of their regional sports network, Root, set the Mariners on the same nut-job track as most of the successful teams in MLB. Because there is no proven template for successful team-building in baseball, and because there is no salary cap, random acts of seemingly reckless spending can bring championships more times than they don’t.
Even when the plan fails, and no matter how hard the industry tries to alienate with its various scandals and controversies, it cannot discourage the hard-core baseball fan. That is the salvation of the game.
If each of the 1.5 million hard-cores brings one sane person to every game, the gate reaches three million. Throw in the much bigger TV revenue, and the formula is nearly idiot-proof.
Enough time has passed since the 1995 Mariners season to have an entire generation come of age without bearing witness to the year’s feats. As a witness to the events then, and the Seahawks successes of 2013-14, I can say with certainty that the raging emotional burn of an unexpected pennant race was the equal of anything the Seahawks produced, and probably greater, because of baseball’s dailyness.
At least football gives several days between games to unclench the jaw.
Now, in 2015, the Mariners owners and bosses, finally, fully embracing the business nonsense of baseball, are preparing to return to relevance, and reap the reward.
A starting lineup has been assembled containing a handful of stars with everyone else more or less around the major league average. The rotation and bullpen are among the best. The manager who proclaimed “a golden age” was upon Seattle baseball with his hire, and who is only now healing from the scoff marks, no longer is seen as a whack job, but as a formidable leader.
It is the best Mariners team since the 2001 version won 116 games. To top all, no other American League team looks extraordinary.
But looks often deceive, no guarantees are made in April, and no W’s are given for wallet size.
To draw another Kansas City reference, the Royals last season finished with 89 wins, two games ahead of Seattle and nine games behind the Los Angeles Angels, who had the best record in MLB. In their playoff series, the Royals ($92M payroll) beat the Angels ($156M) 3-0, and went on to the World Series.
Stuff happens. But to get the chance to win it all, a team has to get to October. If a team like Seattle can’t grow enough players to be major league average or better, it has to buy those players. In Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, they bought those players.
Ownership always could buy premier players in their expensive prime. Finally, ownership did. Finally, comes the award for those fans with industrial-strength passion over logic: A World Series.